Do I like people? A quiz

  1. When traveling alone on a train, do I prefer (a) to have someone to sit with, for company, or do I prefer (b) empty seats all around, so that no one will disturb me?

  2. Do I prefer (a) dogs or (b) cats? or (b) doglike cats? or (b) catlike dogs?

  3. In friendships, do I seek (b) identification or (a) discovery?

  4. When the phone rings, do I (a) spring to pick it up with excitement or (b) recoil momentarily and hesitate before I answer?

  5. Do I prefer to look at (a) my own pictures of others or (b) other people’s pictures of me?

  6. Do I more often find myself (a) able to remember people who don’t remember me or (b) unable to remember people who do remember me?

  7. Do I prefer (a) to visit other people or (b) for people to visit me?

  8. Do I sometimes go for days without contacting anybody? (a if no; b if yes)

Photo by Natalia Osiatynska, 2008.


The answers are irrelevant. The very fact that you took the time to take this quiz means that you are highly self-involved and generally uninterested in other people. Normal people do not wonder whether they like others (including even you). It is obvious to them that they do. Right now they are probably tallying up their answers to the “What kind of helper are you?” quiz, available elsewhere.

Note: Copyright Natalia Osiatynska. First published in Y Sin Embargo in 2008.


The lunch tray at the train depot in Sapporo, Japan, was the Goldilocks of lunches, balanced in every regard—neither too small nor too big, slow yet fast and as indulgent as it was austere. It consisted of three small chicken meatballs, takuan pickled radish, miso soup and onigiri rice balls wrapped in nori, one with salmon, the other with an ume pickled plum. Photo by Natalia Osiatynska. taken in 2009 with the Ricoh GR Digital 2.

Spring. Renewal, rebirth, awakening. The seasonal equivalent of a sunrise. Thus, maybe also the seasonal equivalent of the East.

From there, it’s not a stretch to suggest that springtime is for Asian fare. Think about it. We’re done eating stew. We want lighter, vibrant foods. Eagerly we wait for the local radishes and bunches of asparagus to catch up with the times. Alas, we’re relegated to food that’s been flown to our shops from the Antipodes. Here’s an idea: instead of preempting the local spring offering, we can embrace this vernal break from being good locavores to explore Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai or Korean. It’s a way to fill our bodies with nutrients and sensations we haven’t been getting. It’s a way to cut out dairy, wheat, meat or all of the above—without deprivation. It’s a way to diet without dieting, travel without traveling. It’s a (fascinating, sensual, complicated) shortcut to restoring balance, and isn’t restoring balance really what springtime is all about?

Balance appears absolute: just enough without spilling over into too much; necessity and sufficiency; speed and endurance; lightness and strength. Achieving balance, however, is a subtle, relative quest. What is needed, after all, depends on what is missing. And excess? Excess must go.

At our house, when we want to restore balance, we make Japanese.

Dogodniej—ideas for making life easier for you and your family

Name by Natalia Osiatynska, logo by Marta Morawska, 2014.

Name by Natalia Osiatynska, logo by Marta Morawska, 2014.

Better suited. More comfortable. Easier.

No English word or phrase manages to convey the nuance of the Polish dogodniej, possibly because no English near-equivalent contains as effortless a reference to dignity. Such is the meaning of the non-deliberate godnie hidden in plain sight, and such is perhaps the unspoken benefit of employing honest design thinking to improve one’s everyday life.

Dogodniej is the culmination of a collaboration between designer Marta Morawska and a group of urban parents, which was hosted by Warsaw’s “ę” Creative Association in early 2014. Part of Morawska’s Prace Domowe creative series, the project applied the socially-driven approach of participatory design to the demands of home life in the contemporary family. The newly launched website comprises the group’s need-based innovations in organization, ergonomics and safety, presenting uncommon solutions to common problems and a platform for more to come.


Want to learn more and meet the Dogodniej team? Come to the inaugural event at Delikatesy Esencja on Sunday March 16 at 5pm. Kids, dogs and open minds are all welcome.

Desktop? Wallpaper? Background?

Currently on my desktop—an image that soothes my eyes while keeping things interesting.

Currently on my desktop—an image that soothes my eyes while keeping things interesting.

Whether it’s a landscape you shot on a trip, your toddler captured mid-grin or a whooshy abstract that came with your operating system, the picture on your screen should really serve the ergonomics of sight. Does it make desktop items easy to find and the content of applications easy to read? Is it helping your eyes relax, or at least not straining them any further? As a unit of meaning, is it the right kind of jolt for your mind?

Consider the image as a field of colors, patterns and shapes. After all, that’s what your eyes and brain have to process whenever your desktop is revealed or a portion of it is visible along with your open applications. If this background is less “rest area” and more “visual assault”—it might be a good idea to switch to an uncomplicated, low-contrast image with relatively neutral colors and a minimum of noise. As my college professor Donna Arnink used to say, we are “limited-capacity processors”; if the desktop is busy, the brain is that much slower at taking in anything else.

But don’t think I am suggesting you swap out your sweetheart for a rectangle of grey. While subject-free graphics do make unobtrusive backgrounds (think of wallpaper on actual walls), they can also be cold and impersonal. Aim for soothing, not boring. Relax the eyes and energize the mind. Enjoy that flutter of love (toward a person) or pride (in a photo) or appreciation (for a clever semiotic puzzle of some kind). In Saussurean terms, give your signifier a special signified.

A cropped, flipped and desaturated image can be personal and clutter-free.

Figure-and-ground images like portraits and nature macros can be made to have plenty of simple ground and a subject that doesn’t peek out from behind open items. Try cropping, flipping and desaturating to get these to behave as comfortable backdrops for your work. Landscapes and still lifes, in turn, lend themselves to displaying an actual subject in a way that can be edgless, soothing and meaningful all at once. Be choosy and don’t hesitate to carve into an image for the crop you deserve.

Note that if you happen to be a graphic designer or photographer, at risk for the perils of simultaneous contrast, your desktop should be essentially color-free. If, however, you can handle a hue, sticking to greens and blues is always a good idea (for the same reason that we tend to relax better in rooms painted to resemble clear skies, verdant landscapes and expanses of water).

As one who is hypersensitive to the distracting, enervating qualities of visual clutter, I am both a good test subject in these matters and the author of some uniquely sterile non-abstract photographs. I’ve selected the ones that best combine a little break for the eyes with a treat for the limbic system. Help yourself... unless of course whatever you have up has got to stay.

The view over Europe from a flight to Barcelona, 2008.

The last of last winter’s ice on Moraine Lake, Alberta, 2008.

The Rockies in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, 2008.

Military craft over Warsaw’s Mokotów, summer of 2013.

Back of a building near Warsaw’s Plac Zbawiciela, 2011.

A bird with a branch for each foot in Banff, Canada, 2008.

Former façade detail at Denmark’s Arken Museum, 2009.

Rainbow over Copenhagen’s Kødbyen, April Fool’s Day, 2010.

Cream-cheese pound cake with raspberry preserves, 2013.

All images by Natalia Osiatynska, formatted for the 15" retina screen and roughly suitable for any horizontal display. Personal use as computer wallpaper only please—all other rights reserved and all other uses subject to prior author approval.

Unlearning to not sing

Relax your tongue.

Drop your shoulders.

Open your throat. 

In grade school I learned that I shouldn’t bother singing and for two decades I didn’t give it a second thought. “Tone-deaf” was as much a part of my identity as being short, brown-eyed and good at learning foreign languages; whatever I might have been missing—I wasn’t even missing it.

Things changed a few years ago when I started attending audation classes for babies with my infant son. Featuring simple melodies, a reassuring teacher and a group of non-judging participants (each focused entirely on her respective toddler), these sessions created the perfect environment for the acquisition of basic music skills, not only by the freshly born, but also, it turned out, by the unsuspecting adult. The teacher, Gordon Method educator Anita Wleklińska, possessed a voice so beautiful and so bellowing that it was easy to follow her lead and still remain safely camouflaged. The songs she selected were uncomplicated, pretty and endlessly repeating. In fact, they were so memorable—and the experience of emitting them so pleasurable, the conviction that my flawed singing was good for my son so compelling—that I found myself singing more and more often at home. 

In time, Anita’s sing-songy tunes were joined by my own attempts at lullabies, both existing and new. Another year later, I could swear I was on pitch at least some of the time. By then, I also had a pretty good idea of what it was that I had been missing out on during all those song-free years of my life.

Not up. Forward.

Breathe into your back.

Allow the voice to just happen. 

Five months ago I started taking lessons from acclaimed voice teacher and gifted soprano Eliza Szulińska. Charismatic and irreverent, Eliza is easy to like and hard to resist. She stuns me every time she selects a song for me to study, so apt is her ear for my ear (for both music and the meaning of lyrics). Eliza also has an uncanny ability to communicate the inconceivable, giving direction that works without necessarily making sense. Sometimes I know what she means, sometimes I don’t, and there seems to be no correlation between understanding my instructor and showing improvement. Eliza’s range of teaching methods invokes in her learner a combination of random body movements, unbidden confessions, synesthesia, laughter and tears. On a day I felt achy and tired, I spent the entire lesson lying down with my eyes closed, not singing but humming the song we were working on. Another time, Eliza had me pretend I was smoking in order to reboot my breathing (supposedly, most addictive of all in a cigarette is the deep, focused, distributed breathing it affords the smoker). And once or twice she has even poured me a shot.

Singing lessons unearth a person. Like physical therapy, they relax tight muscles and flex ones we've neglected. They deepen one’s breathing, ease tension, straighten posture. Like psychotherapy, they make one more curious, more patient and less afraid of embarrassment. Like any breathing practice, they energize the body and quiet the mind. But what is most amazing, most irresistible, is the sensation of pointing one’s voice at a sound and not-missing: all the satisfaction of a ball landing on that sweet spot, only the ball is a sound and the racket our body.

I hear a song now and I find myself able to repeat it, able to remember it. Absent-mindedly, I hum and sing every day, reveling in the way the vibrations massage my face, the air fills my body, the lyrics and melodies give expression to my inner reality. I am speaking differently, standing differently, listening more. My big achievement, not being off key, is matched by new achievements: not holding the breath back, not muffling vibrations. Indeed, learning to sing as I have been learning to sing is mostly a process of unlearning. It is an exercise in surrendering control so that maybe I can come around to claiming it very, very gently.

Send it through the eyes.

Wider. Narrower. Lower.

Let everything go.



NOTE: The title of this post is inspired by the 1971 poem Unlearning to Not Speak by Marge Piercy.